DATE CREATED: 12/1/08
Tom Curran, NBCSports.com
RAVENS VS. TITANS
When Ravens have the ball...
The key to this game for the Ravens will be offensive coordinator Cam Cameron calling a game that keeps Joe Flacco from having to deal with too many third-and-long situations. In order to do that, a running game must be established with Le'Ron McClain and Willis McGahee against a Titans defense that's had a week to rest. That will be an exceptionally tall order. Throwaways will be preferable to sacks. Sacks will be preferable to flipping the ball up desperately.
Tennessee did allow 147 rushing yards the first time they met the Ravens, so Baltimore has run the ball on them. They will have the best receiver on the field - ex-Titan Derrick Mason - at their disposal. And Flacco's mobility is a plus as well (though he could get broken like a dry stick if he gets too aggressive). But you can't reasonably expect the Ravens to get more than 20 points with their offense. Not against the Titans in Tennessee.
When Titans have the ball...
The yardage rookie running back Chris Johnson can generate and the decisions Kerry Collins makes are the key. Remember, the last time Collins faced Baltimore in a playoff game, the results weren't good. That was the 2000 Super Bowl when Collins ran the Giants and the Ravens ran them over 34-7.
The problem for Tennessee is that they don't have potent wideouts to keep the Ravens' defense honest. They can load up against the run, bring pressure and know that, somewhere back there, Ed Reed is waiting on Collins' mistakes. It's a very bad matchup for Tennessee.
The top-seeded Titans won in Baltimore, 13-10 back in October. They scored one touchdown in that game - an 11-yard pass from Collins to Alge Crumpler with two minutes left. But Flacco's improved and the Ravens defense is playing as well as anyone - certainly better than Tennessee's has in the latter half of the year.
This will be a game of field position, turnovers and keeping quarterbacks intact. Flacco should keep his head on the proverbial swivel because Tennessee will be coming with bad intentions. Bet on that.
CARDINALS VS. PANTHERS
When Cardinals have the ball...
In the Wild-Card round, Arizona caught the Falcons flat-footed by running it with Edgerrin James early and often. He ran the ball 16 times for 73 yards - a Csonkian output by normal Arizona standards.
Meanwhile, the Cardinals eventually got to the place they like to be - the air - and got Larry Fitzgerald and Anquan Boldin involved to pace their win. But the Panthers have a better run defense than Atlanta (marginally) and, with Jon Beason and Julius Peppers have two real game-changers.
The injury to Anquan Boldin's hamstring will be worth monitoring as the week goes on because that receiver can tear up a defense and he brings an attitude of toughness Arizona will need.
When Panthers have the ball...
The Panthers running game has been devastating this season and Arizona - despite its work holding down a puzzlingly punchless Michael Turner - were 28th in rushing yards per play this year. DeAngelo Williams and Jonathan Stewart keep Jake Delhomme from getting too (ahem) inventive and the wondrous Steve Smith is worth a big play or three in every game. Did the Cardinals just surprise Atlanta? Or are they suddenly a defense to be reckoned with?
The Cardinals won a playoff game after deciding to actually play hard. Yay. Now, will they be interested in playing hard after taking a plane trip East?
On Oct. 26, the Cardinals seemed interested, jumping to a 17-3 lead over the Panthers. But it didn't last. They allowed 21 third quarter points and lost 27-23. Joking aside, the Cardinals must be taken seriously. But the more balanced, consistent, dependable team has the edge in this one. And that's Carolina.
EAGLES VS. GIANTS
When Eagles have the ball...
Philadelphia has the ticking offensive time bomb in Brian Westbrook. He can be held down all day then explode as he did against Minnesota, turning a simple screen into a game-clinching touchdown. He had 133 rushing yards the last time these teams met, and finished with more than 200 total yards.
The Giants need to keep Donovan McNabb contained in the pocket and will need to pay particular attention to wideout Kevin Curtis, who's becoming more effective as the season wears on. It's a big day for Giants defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo to hatch a scheme
When Giants have the ball...
Eli Manning struggled in the last meeting at Giants Stadium. A chunk of his 123 passing yards came in garbage time and the Giants only managed one offensive touchdown in the 20-14 loss. But Manning's 2007 playoff performance shouldn't be discounted. He ratchets it up when it's win or go home (unlike someone who's name rhymes with Brayton Fanning).
The Giants' offensive line has been tremendous in 2008. This is their game. Can they protect Manning from the blitz schemes of Eagles defensive coordinator Jim Johnson and open holes for running backs Brandon Jacobs, Ahmad Bradshaw and Derrick Ward? They'll have to. Or the Giants' title defense could end quickly.
There will be no mysteries here. The teams know each other very well and are pretty evenly matched. Simple as it sounds, it will come down to who plays better.
Who wins the 1-on-1 matchups up front and on the outside in the passing game. Philly comes in on a high after taking care of the Vikings and emasculating the Cowboys in consecutive weeks. The Giants aren't going to sweat that. This should be the weekend's most interesting game.
CHARGERS VS. STEELERS
When Chargers have the ball...
Darren Sproles will not be doing to the Pittsburgh Steelers the things he did to the Indianapolis Colts. Clear? San Diego is going from dealing with a middleweight defense to a heavyweight one and expecting the 5-6, 180-pound pocket rocket to treat the Steelers 3-4 linebackers the way he did the Colts is unrealistic.
The Chargers can't count on L.T. either. But they cannot go into Heinz Field without some semblance of a running game or James Harrison will be picking pieces of Philip Rivers from his teeth until Thursday. The answer? Michael Bennett. In spot duty against the Colts, he was OK. He'll need to wear his big boy pants to Pittsburgh and be ready to go.
The San Diego passing game never got revved up against Indy. And in the meeting between these teams in November, Rivers struggled. But Rivers - like Steelers QB Ben Roethlisberger - is a good clutch player. His numbers might not look good all game, but fear him in the fourth quarter. Antonio Gates is in trouble with Troy Polamalu and James Farrior checking him but the Chargers' outside receivers - Chris Chambers and Vincent Jackson - are a concern.
When Steelers have the ball...
Of the 12 teams that made the playoffs, the Steelers have the worst offense. That's what the stats say. They finished 22nd overall in yards generated, 29th in rushing, 29th in sacks per pass play, 29th in scoring red zone touchdowns and - to boot - they were 29th and 31st in punt and kickoff returns. They have their defense and Ben Roethlisberger's guts to thank for getting them the No. 2 seed.
It will be interesting to see how San Diego attacks the Steelers since they're not dealing with a threatening running game. Will they just employ a standard four-man rush on passing downs to avoid getting burned by Roethlisberger in man-coverage? Or will they blitz in an effort to get Big Ben to throw a few up for grabs that cornerbacks Antonio Cromartie and Quentin Jammer can jump on? The Steelers often have a big advantage because of the toughness of Big Ben and Hines Ward. But in this game, the Steelers are dealing with two of the league's bigger corners and he won't intimidate them.
Seeing Indy manage just one "normal" touchdown against the Chargers last week should make Steelers offensive coordinator Bruce Aryans sweat. A couple of key guys to watch for? Steelers big play wideout Nate Washington and Chargers safety Eric Weddle. Both are big play guys.
The Chargers lost to Pittsburgh 11-10 in November on a field goal in the final minute. Pittsburgh went without a touchdown that day but its defense - led by the brilliant Harrison - was a major pain for Rivers.
San Diego's as hot as any team in football right now and Rivers is playing with the skill and swagger of a guy who isn't going to go quietly. This game may not come down to whether or not the Steelers can hold down San Diego's offense - it can - but whether the Pittsburgh offense can muster anything. It its last three games of import, it managed four offensive touchdowns.
Saturday, Jan. 10
AFC: Baltimore at Tennessee, 4:30 p.m., CBS
NFC: Arizona at Carolina, 8:15 p.m., FOX
Sunday, Jan. 11
NFC: Philadelphia at N.Y. Giants, 1 p.m., FOX
AFC: San Diego at Pittsburgh, 4:45 p.m., CBS
Sunday, Jan. 18
NFC: To be determined, 3 p.m., FOX
AFC: To be determined, 6:30 p.m., CBS
Saturday, Jan. 3
NFC: (4) Arizona 30, (5) Atlanta 24
AFC: (4) San Diego 23, (5) Indianapolis 17, overtime
Sunday, Jan. 4
AFC: (6) Baltimore 27, (3) Miami9
NFC: (6) Philadelphia 26, (3) Minnesota 14
AFC: (1) Tennessee, (2) Pittsburgh
NFC: (1) N.Y. Giants, (2) Carolina
Sunday, Feb. 1 in Tampa, Fla.
AFC vs. NFC, 6 p.m. (NBC)
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